Screenings, 01-19-08

Savage Grace
(dir. Tom Kalin)

Headline: Flightly would-be socialite has uncomfortably intimate relationship with gay son

Indie Type: Impeccably art-directed, richly perverse melodrama

Soundtrack: Swooping strings and jazzy piano

Report: I wasn't aware until after this movie was over that it actually screened at last year's Cannes–almost a year ago–yet wasn't a part of last fall's festival season. I can see why it didn't rush into multiplexes: Savage Grace is a nasty piece of work, starring Julianne Moore as an actress who marries the aloof, possibly gay heir to a plastics fortune (at the least, he's prone to "see a dirt road and drive up it," as Moore coyly puts it), and gives birth to a definitely gay son. The family gallivants across Europe, pretending to be charming and happy, and when the dream starts to fall apart, the already unstable Moore pulls her boy even deeper into her delusions. And thus begins the kind of craziness that makes Fox News hate Hollywood, and has probably kept Savage Grace on the back burner for so long. Still, I'm surprised it didn't show up in Toronto: this is the kind of beautifully crafted, emotionally distant indie that TIFF loves, and it features an astonishing performance by Moore, who fills the role with actorly quirks, creating a character who obsesses over social standing but can't stop herself from saying bluntly embarrassing things in public. I didn't love the movie, but I admired its precise dialogue–a lot of ingeniously worded lines like, "My French reading skills are not what they will be," and, "She would've been happy to know that you would've been there"–and it gets absorbingly creepy in the final half hour. It's one of the few films I've seen at this festival that feels like an original, if still pretty far from a masterpiece.

Grade: B

Secrecy (dir. Peter Galison & Rob Moss)

Headline: Keeping secrets gets people killed; so does leaking them

Indie Type: Artful issue doc in the Errol Morris mold

Soundtrack: Minimalist orchestral, ever pulsing

Report: It's a rare political documentary that's brave enough to make a strong case for the viewpoint it means to rebuke, but Secrecy does just that, allowing ex-CIA agents and bigwigs to give direct examples of cases where the leaking of state secrets got Americans killed. Directors Peter Galison and Rob Moss provide even more screen time to experts who contend that it's because bureaucracies tend to bicker over power instead of sharing information that Americans are put in daily danger. Secrecy ranges a little too far by touching on nearly every Bush administration scandal, and the arty animations that link the interviews are distracting more than illustrative. But the movie also dredges up pieces of "classified information" history that put the debate raging today in a fresh context. Galison and Moss have found a group of well-spoken people on both sides of the classify/don't classify argument, and listening to them explain themselves is both enlightening and entertaining.

Grade: B+

Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer)

Headline: Teen crack addict bonds with estranged uncle

Indie Type: Small-town wallow, drenched in naturalism

Soundtrack: None.

Report: There's a terrific short film buried in Ballast, a willfully low-key family drama that prizes scenes of characters suffering in stillness and silence to scenes where they talk with each other and do stuff. That said, director Lance Hammer does have a nice eye, and his premise does develop into something more engaging in the final half hour. After a man's twin brother kills himself, the dead man's ex-wife and drug-addicted son move into his house, and take over his gas and grocery. Towards the end of the film, Hammer raises provocative questions about whether one man can truly step in for another–even if he looks exactly the same. But it takes a lot of self-indulgent "rhythms of everyday life" footage and mumbly dialogue before Ballast starts getting to the point. The poignancy of the final scenes redeems just some of what goes before.

Grade: B-

Perro Come Perro (dir. Carlos Moreno)

Headline: Colombian gangster steals from boss, suffers consequences

Indie Type: Bleached-out pulp in a foreign-language

Soundtrack: Latin-tinged rock

Report: I've got nothing to say about this thoroughly average crime thriller, which doesn't make up in voodoo-enhanced local color what it loses in generic plotting and state-of-last-year's-art cinematography. Mainly I'm pissed that by choosing to see it, I missed the critics' screening of Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, which has been drawing raves. If I can make the midnight of Polanski–starting in half an hour, I'll forgive Perro Come Perro a little.

Grade: C-

Festival Notes…

Here's a not-so-hypothetical: Let's say there's a movie called The Wackness, that gets a lot of pre-Sundance buzz because of its kooky name and the presence of Ben Kingsley and one of the Olsen twins in the cast. The Wackness becomes one of the half-dozen or so titles that get bandied about in Sundance preview columns, often rated as a "must-see," primarily because if so many people are talking about it, then good or bad, film writers start to feel like it would irresponsible to miss it.

Then The Wackness has its first public screening, and the elite circle of critics with "golden ticket" passes–which get them into everything–file reviews that indicate The Wackness is, well, wack. Bland indie comedy; seen dozens of times before. Now I look at my critics' screening schedule and seeing that instead of The Wackness, I could see something relatively unknown, that has a far more interesting description in the program guide. It could be a real find; and something that could use the attention that a national forum like this blog provides. What's my responsibility: To suffer through a movie my readers might've heard of, so that I can concur with the general opinion that it's a "C"-movie at best, or to go looking for the movie that not many people know about yet, so that my readers can be among the first to hear the good news?

I'm trying to do a little bit of both here at this fest. There are a few big titles left to come on my schedule–Sunshine Cleaning, Be Kind Rewind, etc.–and I definitely plan to cover them. But there's also a lot of stuff that you've never heard of; and that I'd never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. That's the nature of Sundance: a lot of first time filmmakers, and a lot of premieres. Like I wrote in my preview piece, knowing what's worth seeing isn't as easy here as it is in Toronto. But at the same time, it would be a mistake go down the list and check off all the movies that generated the most pre-fest buzz, because then I'd just be doing the bidding of some industrious publicists. And as I'm sure you all know, hype does not automatically equally merit

So far, I haven't seen anything "great," and not much I'd call "awful." I've seen average to quite-good, though some of what I'd call quite-good, other critics have liked a bit more. (Stranded and Savage Love, in particular.) The only movie I've missed that has wowed my colleagues is the documentary about Roman Polanski that I mentioned above–and I'm hoping to remedy that mistake before I post next. But by and large, my fellow critics have seen movies they've liked, but nothing they're willing to anoint. Which is as it should be. A lot of the "Sundance sensation" effect that Scott and I inventoried last week has been caused in the past by a combination of scarcity and need. There are only so many movies to see here, and we want some of them to be masterpieces. And sometimes that "want" evolves into wishful thinking.

If I see something I think is great, I'll let you know. But I won't elevate the merely good just to meet a quota.

Update!

Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired
(dir. Marina Zenovich)

Headline: Guilty rapist screwed over by flighty judge

Indie Type: True crime, plus showbiz

Report: Okay, so it's good. Not "Oh-my-God-I've-just-seen-the-best-film-of-the-year" good, but crafty and entertaining and even fairly illuminating. In addition to providing a brief-but-stirring bio of Polanski–a director I was kind of obsessed with about five years ago, when all his movies started coming out on DVD–Marina Zenovich's documentary covers the details of Polanski's rape conviction and subsequent self-imposed exile from America. The movie never denies that Polanski gave champagne and Quaaludes to a 13-year-old girl before having sex with her, though many of the interview subjects kind of explain the crime away as just part of Polanki's debauched response to the murder of his wife by The Manson Family. Mainly, Wanted And Desired attempts to put Polanski's fleeing the country in a new light, by pointing out that his lawyers and the state's lawyers had hammered out a plea agreement, and that Polanski had returned to court time and again when asked, but that the judge on the case had proved to be a bit of a showboat in front of the TV cameras, and neither the defense team or the prosecutors were sure that he'd hand down a sentence that accorded with what they'd all agreed on. The main stumbling block to Wanted And Desired being a great film is that it lacks a certain ambition: It's not about the entitlements of powerful men, or the gray area between consent and rape, or even the end of '70s Hollywood decadence. It's just about the tortured life of a brilliant director, and the circus he brought to town.

Grade: B+

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